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Stagestruck Still

Theater alumna learns that you can make it big on the small stage.


by Carolyn Graham Tsuneta

Although I was the star actor at my small private high school in Michigan, I was an unremarkable theater student at Northwestern. As a first-year student I quickly learned that my fellow students were far more talented and aggressive than I about an acting career. Many of my classmates arrived with impressive acting résumés; some already had agents or were members of the actors' guilds. I was completely outclassed and overwhelmed by their talent, their drive and their knowledge of the acting business. In my first acting class, Professor Ron Parady told us, "If you can feel passionate about anything else but theater, then get out NOW. The only reason to become an actor is because you simply cannot imagine doing anything else with your life. You may aspire to act in a Shakespearean play, but you will pay your rent by doing toothpaste commercials or waiting on tables."

I left class that day feeling inspired. Then I went bravely to my first audition on campus. I read fairly well. I sang fairly well. I danced fairly well. I even got a callback.

But I did not get cast. My ego felt utterly crushed, and suddenly I knew I did not want that life of rejection. I retreated from that part of theater life. I was determined to study theater, but for me, that meant going to classes in acting, dance, voice and theater history. I knew I could not audition again until I had more skills and more confidence.

I did eventually work up the courage to audition for the University's dance ensemble. I did not get in after my freshman-year audition, but by sophomore year, I had developed enough skill to make the company. It was heaven to be back onstage. I had found my niche.

After graduation I focused on life as a wife, mother of three sons and my work as a nanny. During 14 years as a nanny the only time I used my theater training was when I was playacting with toddlers.

Then six years ago my husband encouraged me to audition at the community theater in Bend, Ore., where we have lived since 1992. I auditioned for a chorus role in the musical Oliver!, and my husband auditioned for the role of Bill Sykes.

We were both cast.

I was amazed! It was so exciting to be back in the theater. I volunteered to do everything from painting the set to helping with choreography. I couldn't get enough of the experience. Performing onstage was like coming home.

I realized that, while I might not be cut out for the competitive world of show business, I certainly had enough talent to perform at the community theater level.

Since that time, I have been in many productions at two theaters in Bend, the Cascades Theatrical Company and the 2nd Street Theater. I have even directed two plays, and I am currently a member of the play selection committee at CTC. My husband, my sons and my mother have all gotten involved. It has been wonderful to have a family so involved in the performing arts.

I recently was cast in the role of Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Wit at CTC. The role requires that I shave my head to portray a woman undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

I never would have imagined as an undergraduate at Northwestern that I would one day have the courage to take on such a role, but here I am, ready to accept the challenge. I owe that strength to the excellent training I received at Northwestern. Whenever the work on a play production gets difficult, I remember the words of my acting adviser, Les Hinderyckx (GC58, 68), "With discipline comes freedom." I will always be grateful for those words and for the invaluable experiences I had in the theater department.

Not all of Northwestern's theater graduates become famous actors, but some of us are working hard to bring high-quality theater to small towns all over America. No one at Northwestern would necessarily remember Carolyn Graham, theater student. However, in Bend, Ore., Carolyn Graham Tsuneta is a well-known actress.

Apparently, Ron Parady was right -- some of us cannot imagine a life without theater. I tried to escape, but the pull was too strong. If you are ever in Bend, you'll know where to find me. I'll be at the theater.

Carolyn Graham Tsuneta (C82) is a homemaker and an actress in Bend, Ore.
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Illustration by Traci Daberko